A middle-aged Laotian-American man walked up to the doorstep of a Russian business in a wealthy suburb in New York’s Rockaway Peninsula a few days after Hurricane Sandy made her catastrophic landfall. He rang the doorbell—one of more than a dozen doorbells he had rung that day—and waited.
Widespread blackouts triggered by Sandy had left many homes without heating and lights, and the streets were deserted, sparking a spate of burglaries in some parts of this stretch of Long Island, located within the borough of Queens. Armies of first responders, including the New York National Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) volunteers, paramedics and chainsaw-wielding volunteers from as far afield as Texas, were combing through blocks of wrecked homes, removing fallen trees and checking in on residents who had chosen to stay at home, mostly older citizens with special needs.
For residents and business-owners shaken by Sandy’s impact on daily life on the peninsula and beyond, there was no way of knowing whether the next doorbell signaled a burglar, a straggler or a FEMA volunteer. The response to Sandy was the first time the federal government had deployed its force of volunteers picked from various federal agencies, including federal workers from the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration (TSA). As a result, it put more strangers at the doorsteps of homeowners than they’d seen during previous natural disasters.
At this business in the Far Rockaway, which seemed to have withstood Sandy’s ire, an elderly man answered the door. On seeing the stranger, offered him a $5 bill before inquiring what the purpose of his visit was.
“No sir, I am here to help you,” said Nai Saelee, 38, a Richmond resident and FEMA volunteer who works for the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security in San Francisco. Nai explained that he was a federal agent assigned to help residents whose homes had been damaged by the hurricane apply for federal disaster relief funding, which would pay for repairs to their homes and replace personal belongings damaged by fire, wind and flooding. (Nai, who is of Mien descent, uses his first name formally; it is an indication of seniority within the family.)
”Some people didn’t even know what FEMA was,” Nai said. ”Many people were getting denial letters from FEMA because they hadn’t filled out their disaster relief applications properly, and some applications were fraudulent.”
In the days following Sandy’s catastrophic landfall, many homeowners counted on their private home insurance policies to pay out for repairs to their damaged homes, only to find themselves mired in compensation disputes over the causes of damage. ”I encountered people who had home insurance but failed to get compensation from their policies because their homes were insured for flood damage, rather than wind damage, which in some cases was the cause of destruction to homes,” Nai said. ”For them, FEMA would be the last resort.”
Nai, a lawyer and former school teacher whose family moved from Laos to the United States as refugees in 1980, was in New York for the first time as a Hurricane Sandy first responder. He grew up in the Bay Area, where he attended De Anza High School and got his first job at the US Department of Agriculture facilities in Albany. Since then, he has lived in east Richmond with his wife and three children, surrounded by a close-knit Mien community, which largely originates from northern Laos, near the Chinese border.
Nai signed up as a FEMA volunteer in 2010 as the federal government began tapping into its civilian workforce to tighten disaster preparedness structures after Hurricane Katrina. Manpower shortages and inter-agency discord in Louisiana in 2005 highlighted the need for a comprehensive national disaster response mechanism.
On November 2, four days after Sandy struck New York and New Jersey, Nai received a call from FEMA, the first since he signed up. “After the storm hit on Monday, I opened the West County Times and saw a lot of cars floating on the streets,” Nai said. “I knew FEMA was going to call me.”
Two days later, he was on a flight to the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland, from where first responders were deployed to federal disaster areas. As soon as he arrived at the training center, news of an approaching storm broke, forcing first responders to leave the training center and deploy. ”We had to read the field manuals on the bus as we headed to Breezy Point and the Far Rockaways, ” Nai said. ”When the storm finally hit, we had nowhere to stay.”
Like many of the people who had been deployed to help, Nai and nearly 300 other volunteers found themselves with no housing. With over 100 homes having been razed by fires caused by powerlines tripped by the storm, the first responders were put up on the TS Kennedy, a battleship converted for maritime training in Flushing, New York. On the 500-bunk ship, they slept on racks nicknamed “coffins.”
“The rooms on the ship were very small, and some volunteers requested to be upgraded to officers’ lodgings,” Nai said. “Some were unprepared and returned home a few days after deployment.”
Illnesses, financial difficulties, fatigue and family issues quickly set in and began to chip away at the strength and size of the teams. Nai’s team shrunk from 12 to five volunteers as others headed back home.
“The team started dwindling everyday,” Nai said. “Many said their offices wanted them back, especially the TSA folks.” Nai also observed that dealing with disaster victims was easier for volunteers who were coming from agencies where they work with people every day. “Some volunteers were used to telling people what to do, and not used to being told what to do,” Nai said. “I didn’t know that I would spend time carrying groceries up and down the stairs, doing those small things that make a difference.”
As a member of the first wave of responders, Nai’s assignment through the six weeks of his deployment was to serve as a Community Relations Team, which was tasked with going door to door and informing residents about the FEMA assistance program.
On one of his routine checks, Nai found an elderly Jamaican man who had just one pill left in his supply of medication needed for a heart condition. ”Most hospitals had lost medical records,” Nai said. “He was down to his last pill, so I took a picture of his bottle and emailed it to the logistics staging area.”
In another home, Nai found an old diabetic woman who had not left her home in days. With her heating gone, she was using a gas stove to keep her house warm. “We are not planning to leave until our food runs out,” the woman told Nai. She could not leave her home because she had had her toes amputated and was in the first stage of a coma.
Across the hallway, an elderly man with a respiratory illness was on an oxygen support system. His landlord had forgotten about him. “No one had heard from him in four days,” Nai said. “I had to pound the door with a metal flashlight. He said he never opened the door except for the people that brought his oxygen supplies and medication. No one brought him hot meals.”
During the six weeks of his deployment, his team of 12 first responders helped at least 200 residents each day, covering a community of nearly 7,000 residents by the time they finished on December 14. Nai said some of the people he encountered were not prepared for Hurricane Sandy and the devastation it brought to the eastern seaboard, but it seemed many more were just as surprised to see unfamiliar faces and people of different ethnic backgrounds on their doorsteps.
“We were different among ourselves,” Nai said. “FEMA had designed response teams to bridge language barriers, and although I didn’t meet any Mien families, I was able to use my Spanish.”
Today in his Richmond home, Nai keeps two “go bags” stocked with gloves, face masks, old sneakers, a flashlight, plastic sheeting and basic medical supplies. This, he says, reduces the time it takes to evacuate in the event of an emergency.
On his flight to New York, he brought snow gear. “I packed like I was going snowboarding. I needed to stay warm. The best thing is to prepare, take care of yourself.” Nai said. “You’ve got to stock up on your own supplies. You don’t see an earthquake coming. You don’t see a tsunami coming.”